New alliances in Israel throw electoral race wide open

Netanyahu has been forging political alliances to ensure that, even if Likud won fewer seats than the Blue and White party, he could form a governing coalition.
Sunday 24/02/2019
Retired Israeli military chief Benny Gantz (L) smiles with Yair Lapid,  head of the Yesh Atid party, as they launch a joint list for the upcoming Israeli elections in Tel Aviv, February 21. (AP)
Last-minute coalition. Retired Israeli military chief Benny Gantz (L) smiles with Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, as they launch a joint list for the upcoming Israeli elections in Tel Aviv, February 21. (AP)

LONDON - A whirlwind of political manoeuvring at home forced Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to postpone a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

No official reason was given but sources in Netanyahu’s Likud party told Israeli newspaper Haaretz the trip was postponed due to efforts by political rivals to form an alliance before parties hit a deadline to declare their list of candidates for Israel’s April 9 elections.

Netanyahu’s two main challengers, former military chief Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atis party, joined forces as the Blue and White party. They agreed to take turns as prime minister if elected.

“It’s a huge development in domestic politics. Individually, neither one of them could have posed a serious challenge to Likud and Netanyahu,” said Neri Zilber, adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Netanyahu’s main challenger is Gantz, a political newcomer who served as the head of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) from 2011-15 and is the leader of the Blue and White party. When he launched the Israel Resilience Party in January, Gantz accused Netanyahu of presiding over a “regime” that “encourages incitement and hatred.”

In addition to his last-minute coalition with Lapid, a former finance minister, Gantz forged an alliance with former Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon who heads the Telem party. The bloc is joined by Gabi Ashkenazi, a popular former head of the IDF.

Gantz, in a campaign speech February 19, fired off personal attacks against Netanyahu, calling him the “ruler of Israel.”

“When I lay in muddy foxholes with my soldiers on frozen winter nights, you, Binyamin Netanyahu, left Israel to improve your English and practise it at luxurious cocktail parties,” Gantz said.

Netanyahu called Blue and White a “weak, new left-wing party” that includes IDF generals “of the left pretending to be of the right.”

“For the first time in a decade, Netanyahu has a real challenge to his rule,” said Zilber.

Netanyahu has been forging political alliances to ensure that, even if Likud won fewer seats than the Blue and White party, he could form a governing coalition.

Israeli media reported that Netanyahu pushed various right-wing groups to form an electoral alliance. The Jewish Home-National Union party will run with Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power). The latter is led by followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the ultra-nationalist Kach party, which was banned in the 1980s for racism. Kahane Chai, which emerged after Kahane’s assassination, is listed as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the European Union and the United States.

Without an alliance, either party could miss the electoral threshold of 3.25% and not be able to support the prime minister.

A poll by Channel 13 said Blue and White would gain 36 out the 120 seats in parliament, ten more than Likud, but would fall short of being able to form a coalition while Likud and its traditional allies could cobble together a slim majority of 61 seats. Another survey released February 21 predicted an even closer race in which the Netanyahu bloc would win 60 seats, the Times of Israel reported.

As in past elections, however, the ability to forge alliances before and after Election Day will determine who will be the next prime minister. This could prove an advantage for Netanyahu.

“The king-makers of Israeli politics — the Haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties; the mostly Russian-speaking Yisrael Beiteinu; and the mostly Sephardic cost-of-living focused Kulanu party — have all announced their intention to recommend Netanyahu,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst for Israel-Palestine at Crisis Group.

The ultra-orthodox UTJ announced it would not become part of a Gantz-Lapid government and would “fight in any way to continue Netanyahu’s rule.” Shas voiced support for the prime minister, who, news website Ynet reported, on deadline day unsuccessfully tried to forge an alliance with Kulanu, led by former Likud member Moshe Kahlon.

Zilber cautioned, however, that the right-of-centre bloc might not be as monolithic as polls indicate. Kulanu and even former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Zilber said, could join a Gantz-led government, although Lieberman was unlikely to become part of a coalition including left-wing parties such as Meretz.

Considering the different possible governing coalitions after the elections, it will be a “maths and political question” to see who will be able to form a government, Zilber said.

“If past is precedent,” Zalzberg said, “Israeli voting patterns are tribal-like: Israelis are most likely to vote for parties they identify with sociologically (Haredi, religious Zionist, secular Zionist and Arab).”

This means that even as Gantz and Netanyahu fight over the title of “Mr Security,” “sectorial affiliation” is stronger than the candidates’ actual security performance.

Hovering over the political manoeuvring is the question of whether Israel’s attorney general will press corruption charges against Netanyahu. The prime minister has vowed to stay in office even if he is indicted but could face pressure to step down in such a scenario.

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